Post-Apartheid Situation of South African Wineries
In the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, many countries in the southern hemisphere were carving a stellar wine reputation for themselves, and the international wine industry flourished to fulfill the ever-growing desire for better-quality wines. At the same time, the South African wine industry was experiencing the worst deterioration due to the sociopolitical discrimination of indigenous people during the Apartheid Era. However, there is a profound story behind the Apartheid period and the South African wine industry.
South African Wines in the Early days (Pre-Apartheid)
Winemaking in South Africa began centuries ago, but the country’s winemaking capabilities fully exploded when the British took over the country in the 19th century. South African wine met robust success as it gained recognition in the prosperous and promising British wine market. Here is a timeline of the wine industry in South Africa:
The 1860s— The South African wine continued to revel in its British-championed boom until the 1860s when the Cobden-Chevalier treaty cut short the preferential tariffs that favored South African wines over their French counterparts.1
Late 19th century — In the late 19th century, the country took measures to recover from a devastating Phylloxera epidemic. Consequently, the winegrowers replanted a majority of the vineyards and successfully realized high-yielding grape varieties, such as the Cinsaut.
The 1900s— By the time the 1900s rolled around, an enormous glut of wine occurred in South Africa. Therefore, some winemakers had no option but to discard their unmarketable wines into rivers and streams.
1918 — Due to a lack of appropriate markets, the demand and supply ratio was adversely affected. Hence, in 1918, the Government of South Africa pulled off restoration efforts and formed an organization known as the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt (KWV). The KWV enacted policies and made regulations for wine production and marketing in South Africa.
20th century — The 20th century marked South Africa’s System of Apartheid which attracted sanctions and boycotts from the US and other high-flying export markets. Consequently, South African wines were neglected and isolated, tearing the country off the list of thriving wine regions. Most winemakers sold their vines to Government-owned wine agencies and cooperatives.
1990— By 1990, most South African wines lost their prestige and deteriorated into cheap brandy and poorly-produced bulk wines.
The late 1990s — Then Nelson Mandela regained freedom for South Africa, assumed the presidency, and the sanctions eventually melted into thin air. But what was the aftermath of the sanctions, and how did South African Wineries fare immediately after the Apartheid Era? Let’s find out!
South African Wineries, Post-Apartheid
The apartheid sanctions had a devastating impact on South African wineries. Following the lift of the sanctions, the country’s wineries struggled to revitalize and get back on their feet. Most of the vineyard owners sold their grapes to high-paying winemakers overseas instead of the local co-ops. Winemakers were concerned about South Africa’s spoiled reputation as manufacturers of cheap and low-quality wines. Though the world was prepared to let go of bygones and re-embrace the country’s wines, South Africa only had low-budget and mediocre wines to offer. 2
Realizing a dire need for revolution, the South African winemakers shifted their goals to producing quality wines. The vast majority of South Africa’s wine producers adopted innovative winemaking and viticultural technologies. To fully get back in the good graces of the international export market, they had to compete. And to compete, they had to shred their outdated winemaking techniques and employ new ones.
A New Dawn
Due to the use of technology and innovation, South African wineries improved the quality and taste of their wines following the dark apartheid days. As a result, many foreign investors flocked to the country, ready to purchase and explore the re-invented South African wines. Several wine varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet, Shiraz, and Sauvignon became crowd favorites.
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The prominent KWV cooperative was privatized to allow liberal policies in the winemaking industry that led to further South African wine industry developments.
2003 — During the 1990s, only about 30% of harvested grapes were utilized for wine production, while the remaining 70% were discarded, distilled into brandy, or simply produced as grape juice. As of 2003, South African wineries witnessed significant improvement in the wine market. Consequently, 70% (rather than 30%) of the harvested grapes were produced as consumer wine. 3
Eventually, the arrival of Nelson Mandela marked the end of the Apartheid period in South Africa, which altered the pathetic path of South African wineries and brought in a new dawn.
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References T. Stevenson “The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia” pg 442-448 Dorling Kindersley 2005.
3J. Robinson (ed) “The Oxford Companion to Wine” Third Edition pg 162-163 Oxford University Press 2006